Photos by Ewen Spencer
Pills, pubs and cell phones; tabloids, text messaging and teeming raves; KFC and Macca-Ds; kebab shops, snakebite, boredom & brawling, PlayStation, pot, soccer, superstrength lager, Chinese takeout, cars, curry, nights out with the boys, ogling the girls, chips, trips to (and in) Amsterdam, nights in with the girlfriend, hung-over greasy-spoon breakfasts, looking for love, dealing with dealers: Not since the Specials and the Jam has anyone corralled the gritty collage of British suburban youth culture into four-minute capsules like upstart rapper the Streets (a.k.a. Mike Skinner), whose debut album, 2002s home-recorded Original Pirate Material, made him a chart-topper in Blighty and a name-to-drop cult act stateside.
For those encountering the words British and rapper in the same sentence for the first time, the Streets kaleidoscopic sound, lately tagged high-rise (for the grim apartment towers that still blight many British cities), is a hard-to-tame mongrel: Beneath the H-less Birmingham-London lilt of his almost spoken-word delivery (Skinners style often recalls slam poetry) lurk ska, Jamaican dub, hip-hop, raw drum & bass rhythm sections, house musics hard loops, and nods to the monster half-time bass lines and disco discipline of U.K. garage.
Where so much Brit-rap slavishly emulates American sounds, Skinner, despite being chiefly influenced by U.S. and Jamaican artists, is passionately British: He rhymes in an unaffected native accent, and his poetry is smothered in Limey colloquialisms (Round ere we say birds, not bitches, he proudly announces in Lets Push Things Forward).
From the start, I always felt like I couldnt get away with tryin to be anything I wasnt. I didnt want to answer to anyone, defending why I wasnt me, and I suppose the paranoia of that kept me real . . . everything has to have happened to me at some point.
Skinners slang traverses decades-old lingo geezer (young man), chuffed (happy), barmy (insane) and more recent Brit youth-speak rude (sexy), rough (unattractive), mad (extremely) as well as a plethora of Brit-specific brand and place names. So how will the Streets wordplay translate across the pond?
Weve been listening to American music for years and learning what the slang is, so I think universal stories travel really well. But no, I never expected the Americans to wanna buy the Streets, and I think theres always gonna be a ceiling on what we can achieve in America.
Lazily labeled the English Eminem for his street-level white-boy viewpoint and sardonic wit, Skinner demonstrated a three-dimensional lyricism on Pirate Material alien to His Emness. While Skinner loves to bluntly chronicle lifes mundanities, hes also able to tackle issues both micro and macro, grinding and grandiose, often within the same song. Pirate Material covered everything from loutish late-night antics in shabby ethnic restaurants to the hypocrisy of the British drug laws, using language from everyday brevity (Your bird might fuck off or you might lose your job), to tired MC chest-beating, to crudely cinematic Roman imagery reflecting Skinners unlikely fascination with greatness and discipline (In the afterlife gladiators meet their maker/Float through the wheat fields and lakes of blue water).
With a bigger budget at hand and great expectations to meet, Skinner wouldve been forgiven for further indulging his more bombastic designs with A Grand Dont Come for Free (just released in the USA), but instead the album is disconcertingly underwhelming. Though it enters with, literally, a fanfare, the lyrical content immediately grounds any epic expectations: Just take back the DVD/Withdraw that extra money/Tell mum I wouldnt be back for tea. Skinner delivers a depressingly detailed biographical work: numerous mentions of ATMs, ashtrays, broken TVs, and enough cell-phone minutiae to fill a T-Mobile manual. No panoramic worldviews this time, no puffed-up self-promotion. Grand is something of a lowbrow rap opera, starring Skinner, his mates down the pub, his missus and a missing thousand quid. Its hardly The Wall, but it might be a new-millennium Quadrophenia, paranoia, betrayal and all. Back home, the Streets has the allure of those dour Brit soap operas and a market share to match: See, where American audiences tend to crave images of wealth and glamour to aspire to, Brit equivalents are drawn to portrayals of the everyday, finding reassurance in characters no better off than themselves.
But Grands revisionism is neither accident nor master plan: Just to be different, he mulls via phone in his chirpy yet pensive tone. I always want to feel like Im not repeating myself, and I dont think that Ill do personal experiences again. The new release apparently chronicles the dilemmas of a maturing male (Skinners now 25), negotiating that tricky time when girlfriend prevails over mates, and the saminess and security of domestication beckon. But in fact the record was two years in the making, and Skinners personal life has changed little since his debut: I think its more the story Im tellin rather than the way Im changin. I mean, Ive never been one for being single much, anyway.
Grand is an even more eclectic musical journey than its predecessor, adding a curious take on T. Rex/Sweet early-70s platformed rock (Fit But You Know It) and numerous multitracked attempts at semi-singing that recall Oliver and Englands faded seaside variety shows. Some of the all-the-lads-together chanting is annoying (Not Addicted), and Skinner continues to fare better communicating atmosphere rather than aggression. Yet the multiplicity doesnt reflect pressure to better his debut: It felt easier this time, because I had the support to do the things that I wanted. It was an environment where I could obsess over it, where I was allowed to obsess over it. And I put myself under more pressure than anyone else could put me under, anyway.
On the face of it, the Streets is an establishment-bashing critical voice, and its easy to assume that Skinners the latest in a line of left-leaning Brit chart-toppers from the Clash and the Style Council to Chumbawumba. But Britain now has a (nominally) socialist government, so taking shots at that hardly makes you Che Guevara. In fact, Skinner takes a singular stance on almost everything, and offers the somewhat simplistic yet long-considered contemplations of the dedicated stoner: The bottom line is they wanna be in power because its their living. So really, I think, youve just gotta do what people tell ya. I mean, the ideal situation would be for the government to ignore what the people say and do the best thing for the country, but I dont think theyre going to do that theyd get voted out.
Skinners radar is much more sensitive to personal politics and urban social trends: Pirates standout social commentary, Geezers Need Excitement, while painting a disturbingly accurate portrait of Britains after-hours drunk-in-the-takeaway lout culture, also aims to illustrate the unchanneled energy of young blokes everywhere. I think when a man approaches his teens, says Skinner, hes built to start hunting, hes built to start contributing, and hes got all the desires to compete, but hes nothing to take it out on. I think when kids are 13, they should be, yknow, competing in something building cars or designing stuff out in the workplace. And then, when they get to 20, they have to go back to school, cause I just think that everyone suddenly realizes that educations a good thing when they get to pretty much after the education age.
Though the Streets rhymes reel off a pharmacy of controlled substances, drug cultures not where Skinners fascination rests: I dont think its particularly interesting, I dont really think it says anything, and I dont think drugs help me creatively I think they hinder me, actually. I like writing about drugs, because these are times that are exciting in our own minds, but no, I never make a song on drugs.
The inside sleeve of Pirate Material includes a photo of a pallid Skinner, apparently in the back of a taxi, orphanlike in the darkness, distraught in expression, cell phone at ear. Im not lonely, but kinda . . . I mean, Im in my own world, and I consider things on my own. Skinner captures this with flotation-tank samples and words of gathering unease on Grands standout, Blinded by the Light, a narrative of his half-stoned search for no-show friends at an overcrowded rave. Its an end-of-an-era betrayal story, one of those nights that in hindsight seem like signposts between the assumed trust of many in adolescence and the genuine trust of a few in adulthood.
Whether Mike Skinner is a true pioneer or, in Original Pirate Material, the creator of one generation-defining album remains to be seen. Though the weaker A Grand Dont Come for Free cant approach Pirates workingman majesty, the Streets sophomore effort may well reap the rewards of its predecessors rep.
The Streets plays the Wiltern LG on Saturday, June 12.
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